This is going to be the Feel-Good Story of the Year. And like most warm and fuzzy tales, it will have a simple plot, an obvious hero and absolutely no salty language. Or else.
That seems to be the directive sent out by the people who run Madison Square Garden and the New York Rangers regarding Eric Lindros. One of the most controversial and enigmatic superstars of all time, a 28-year-old who has been embroiled in hockey controversy since prepubescence, wants a fresh start with his new team. And so ...
All of Eric's baggage has been checked. Understand? The shots leveled at him by Flyers GM Bobby Clarke, who has repeatedly said Lindros tried to destroy his old team? Irrelevant. The trade-me-to-Toronto demands made by Eric and his agent-dad Carl during a year-long stalemate? Old news. The recurring head injuries? Next question. The overprotective mom, Bonnie, who once claimed the Flyers "tried to kill" her son by making him catch a plane when he had a punctured lung? Tired. The out-of-court settlement he got from a Philly sports talk radio station that claimed he missed a game in 1997 because of a hangover? Not worth discussing. Any of it. From now on, we talk about the future. Do we understand each other? We do.
But just to be sure, someone from the organization is going to monitor your time with Eric. Just to be safe, an unsmiling guy is going to stand with his arms crossed, staring at his watch every so often, and make sure things are, you know, on the up-and-up.
Sure, it seems a tad silly that an outfit ready to send Lindros back onto the ice, into a world of flying shoulders, elbows and Kohos, is afraid of a few questions. And, yeah, it's more than a little absurd that an organization claiming there's no great risk in trading for a guy who, before this preseason, was last seen on NHL ice in May 2000 -- lying in the fetal position, unconscious after taking a brutal open-ice check from the Devils' Scott Stevens -- is worried about whether Lindros is ready for a few flash bulbs. But what can you do? Try to look ahead. In fact, when grilled by club officials as to what this story is about, you respond, "About Act II of Eric's career: The Comeback."
And then you slide Lindros this little empty-net opportunity: "Does it seem to you like the curtain's going up on a second act? You know, you've had this intermission, a year off and ... "
Eric doesn't like the theme. "See, this is the part of hockey I don't really like," he says, glancing at his protector. "I know you're trying to make this as colorful a story as possible. I just don't really get into that. I look at it this way: I got traded."
This is the type of answer that makes Eric feel good. Denial is his way of taking the high road. In a year when Clarke, his old boss and a boyhood hero, has basically said that Team Lindros -- that's Eric, Carl, Bonnie and their medical staff -- nearly brought down the Flyers organization, Eric has steadfastly declined invitations to enter the gutter. Not that he hasn't been tempted: "Going through what I went through last year, and feeling like it might not ever end, and trying to go about my business and be quiet about it, throughout the whole year, I guess an ugly side of hockey reared its head. I'm past that with the trade, and I won't have to deal with that kind of situation ever again."
But the more you hear these types of answers, the more you realize there's no way to tell a story of where someone may be going without telling where he's been. Whether it's Lindros or some 18-year-old rookie from the Czech Republic, everyone has a back story. In every question and every answer, there is the need to look back. It's unavoidable. Even the Rangers must finally admit it.
For example, Rangers coach Ron Low can't just talk about Lindros as a guy who has "obvious, amazing skill ... A guy who's 6'4" and 245 with a body fat of 8.5% ... One of the top five or six guys in the league." He can't simply talk about how Lindros was the best player in Rangers camp "from Day One," or how "it was scary to think this guy hadn't played in 15 months, the way he was skating, passing and shooting."
No, Low also has to acknowledge that Lindros missed 56 regular-season and 22 playoff games between March 1998 and May 2000 because of six concussions, and that Lindros may have to alter his game a little to save his career.
"Maybe he's going to be a bit more defensive in his thought process," Low says. "Maybe a little more careful about skating, head down, through the neutral zone. Maybe the stick's going to have to come up in that instant when, if someone's going to come in high, or throw an elbow, he's going to run into a stick instead of Eric. I think if he does that a few times, guys will forget about doing it, because who wants to run into a big man with a stick up this high?"
And when apprised of his coach's words, Lindros cannot simply answer, "You want to play good, clean hockey. You shouldn't have incidents where people are going after each other's heads." No, he also has to admit, "There's going to be some situations where guys go after my head. No ifs, ands or buts. But I don't think it has to be overplayed."
But there will be no downplaying it should Lindros suffer a seventh concussion. And though the Rangers and GM Glen Sather ("I don't even think about him getting hurt") try to steer you away from the issue, it's right there in Lindros' contract: The Rangers, who traded three players to Philly for Lindros, will receive a first-round draft pick in 2003 from the Flyers should Lindros sustain a season-ending injury during the first 50 games this year.
No one is able to look to the future with unqualified confidence when it comes to Eric Lindros. Not linemate Theo Fleury, who gushed after Lindros' preseason debut: "Did you see him carry the puck into the zone, with three guys on his back, on the power play?" When asked if he was worried about opponents taking a run at Lindros, Fleury admitted, "We're going to have to try to protect him. We know teams are going to be gunning for him."
Not goaltender Mike Richter, who says, "Eric is talent, skill and strength in one package. And he plays with an edge. To get him at 28 years old changes the complexion of this organization in one day." But when asked about the risk in signing him, Richter says, "He's been cleared to play by all his doctors. We have to trust them."
The only notable exception is captain Mark Messier, who says, "Since he came into the league, Eric's been one of the top five players in the world. He plays in every situation. He's 245 pounds with the speed of a small man. He's got finesse, he's got power and all the experience to go along with it. He's played in the Finals and in a lot of playoff games. He's won the Hart Trophy. The only thing missing is a Stanley Cup." And when asked why a player this great would ever be traded by a team that still owned his rights for four more seasons, Messier says, "Sometimes, things don't work out between a team and a player. I think with the things that Eric went through with Philadelphia management, it was time for him to move on. We don't need to figure out who's to blame. Things happen."
With Lindros, so many things have happened it's hard to keep track. As a 16-year-old prodigy in 1989, he was drafted No.1 by Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League, but held out -- this is junior hockey, remember -- until he was traded for three players and $80,000 Canadian to Oshawa, the team he wanted to play on because it was closer to his Toronto home. Two years later, he was selected No.1 in the NHL draft by the Quebec Nordiques, but held out again -- this time for a whole year -- until the Nordiques (who became the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche) traded him to Philadelphia for six players, two draft picks and $15 million. (And even that transaction was not completed until the Flyers won an arbitration case against the Rangers, who cried foul, claiming they'd also reached a deal with Quebec.)
"This is like paradise," Lindros said on the day of his signing in Philadelphia in 1992. Little did he realize it was just the beginning of a long, strange and strained relationship with the club, and especially with Clarke, who never seemed to regard Lindros as "old school" or "team-first" enough for his taste. For all of Lindros' goals and assists -- 290 and 369 in 486 games over eight seasons -- it seemed there were as many injuries and oddities, on and off the ice, that kept his name in the news. There was an altercation in a bar that led him to an Ontario courtroom in 1992. There was a story in 1996 that Lindros had given his complimentary tickets to a reputed mob boss. There was the "hangover" story in 1997, which not only led to a favorable out-of-court settlement -- the radio station that alleged Lindros had sat out with a hangover apologized, fired the guy who broke the story and agreed to donate money to a charity -- but also prompted Team Lindros to hire a private investigator to search for the story's source. And there was the story in 1999 that had the Lindros family alleging that Clarke and team trainer John Worley "tried to kill" Eric by putting him on a plane home from Nashville after he'd suffered a collapsed lung.
These were just the stories that got major play. In the year-and-change since Stevens put a brutal end to Lindros' Flyers career, there's been a non-stop flow of trash coming out of Clarke's mouth, including the allegation that some of those six "concussions" were just headaches that Lindros "self-diagnosed" into concussions, and that during Eric's time with the Flyers, the GM had to put up with parents who told him things like "you shouldn't trade for this guy because Eric doesn't like his agent" and "this guy shouldn't be playing with Eric because he doesn't pass the puck enough to him."
Carl Lindros says his wife never spoke to Clarke and that he himself never overstepped his rights as an agent, but Clarke has never backed down: "I'd never come across anything like that. I had no way of knowing how to handle it. We ended up trying to baby Eric along and do whatever his parents wanted for him, and it backfired on us. Eric got to be bigger than the team. We'll never do that again."
What the Flyers did turns out to be exactly what Sault Ste. Marie and Quebec did before them. That is, allow Team Lindros to force a trade. By not signing Philly's $8.5 million "qualifying offer," and stating publicly that he was done playing for the Flyers and would only accept a trade to Toronto, Lindros set the wheels in motion for what would turn into the longest year of his life. Cleared by his neurologists to play in late November, Lindros worked out religiously right up until the March 13 trade deadline, but ended up missing the entire season as the Maple Leafs couldn't come up with an offer good enough to satisfy Clarke, who now had a serious "screw them" attitude. It wasn't until August, when the Rangers got desperate after their failed bid for Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr ignited a firestorm of negative press, that Lindros to New York became a possibility, and ultimately, a reality.
"No Brainer" was the backpage headline of the New York Post, double-edged words chosen in part, obviously, for their dark humor, because there's no way this move could be considered anything but high risk. Forget all of Clarke's charges that Team Lindros is worse than any set of tennis parents on the planet. Take all those tabloid-friendly stories of the past out of the mix. Eric Lindros, the player, is going to have to prove he can do what former Rangers Pat LaFontaine and Jeff Beukeboom could not do. He's going to have to do what NFL quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman could not do. Hell, he's going to have to do what his own brother, former Islander Brett Lindros, could not do. That is, continue playing at the top level of a professional sport after suffering multiple head injuries.
Says Carl Lindros, "I asked Dr. James Kelly, if he were your son, would you let him play? He said he would." Taking time to heal, Carl says, is the key. The year off -- even the fact that Eric didn't get his wish to go to Toronto in time to play in last spring's playoffs -- thus becomes a blessing.
But ... (Go back to the beginning of this story. There's always a "But ... ")
Does Lindros have to change his game? Can he still put all that size and strength to its best use -- that is, throwing body bombs, taking on all comers, holding the puck until the last possible second? Fact is, he's never known another way to play. That's why on May 26, 2000, in Game 7 against the Devils, playing with the symptoms of a concussion, Lindros couldn't resist putting his head down and charging with the puck through the neutral zone, where his chin ultimately met the shoulder of Stevens.
"I think if he tries to change, he's more likely to get hurt," says Fleury. "To think in hockey means you hesitate. When you hesitate, that's when you get worse than you give. I think he's got to go out there and be the same Eric Lindros he always was."
And what of Low's suggestion that Lindros needs to get more defensive? That he may need to raise his stick a little more? Ha. That's a good one. More than a few Rangers roll their eyes when they're told of Low's comments. You're told that as a Flyer, Lindros carved up more meat in New York than a deli owner. In fact, he was suspended twice in 1997, once for cutting Shane Churla and once for cutting Ulf Samuelsson. In 1999, he got two games for nearly taking out Petr Nedved's eye. "When he found me on the ice," says Nedved, "it usually wasn't pretty. Intimidation is part of his game."
Yet, at the press conference to introduce Eric to the New York media, Carl Lindros suggested that his son could learn something from Messier: "Mark's changed his approach. He organizes his energy. You don't necessarily have to destroy somebody to end up with the puck." When told that his dad thought he should change his game, Eric said, "I don't think that's what he was suggesting when he said that."
"Yes, I was," says Carl.
In truth, if Lindros is to learn something from Messier -- who, fittingly, has his own dad for an agent too -- it could be that a change of scenery can be a great thing for an athlete. "There are some exceptional guys who can spend their entire careers with one team," Messier says. "But for me, coming from Edmonton, it was the right time for me to make a change, not only from a professional standpoint, but from a life standpoint. I needed a change and it came at the right time. I see a lot of similarities with Eric in that regard. I think it was the right time for him to move on and start a second chapter in his career."
Of course, Eric doesn't look at it that way. To him, he just got traded.
And to him, that in itself is the Feel-Good Story of the Year.
This article appears in the October 15 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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